The Art History Newsletter

Verano español en San Francisco

by | 7 April 2011 | Conferences, Modern, Museums

It’s going to be a summer of Spanish expatriates in the bay area; Balenciaga and Spain is currently on view at the De Young, followed shortly by Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso Paris, while SFMoMA has organized The Steins Collect: Matisee, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde beginning next month. Together this looks to be a formidable group, and I hope to provide insights to potential viewers on all three.

Balenciaga and Spain: Exhibition and Symposium

De Young Museum, San Francisco, 26 March 2011

On 26 March 2011, the De Young Museum in San Francisco hosted a symposium to celebrate and inform its new exhibition Balenciaga and Spain. The exhibition, curated by Hamish Bowles, explores connections between Balenciaga’s work and six aspects of Spanish culture: Spanish art, dance, religious life, the Spanish royal courts, regional dress, and bullfighting. I will begin by reviewing the exhibition, which despite its problems is a compelling overview of the oeuvre of a master designer and craftsman, and follow with the symposium.


Despite its awkward layout, Balenciaga and Spain manages to present a compelling case for couture-as-art.  Garments are displayed thematically rather than chronologically, and this is apparent in the initial hallway where pieces date from the 1930s through the 1960s. What ties these first pieces together (with one exception) is the color: black. Balenciaga preferred to work in black for much of his career because it allowed him to emphasize form over surface (so explained curator Hamish Bowles during his symposium lecture).

It is in the following room where the first direct references to Spanish art are made. In front of an oversized reproduction of one of Miró’s sparse abstractions of the 1960s stands a cocktail dress from Winter 1967. After the initial disappointment of not seeing the actual Miró, one becomes aware of similarity of form between the black trapezoidal marks in the painting and the “batwing” structure of the rather novel cocktail dress. The curatorial gesture of appropriating some of the cultural gravitas of the Miró for the work of the couturier seemed effective.

Just around the corner, a panel of text contains a quote from Cecil Beaton’s 1954 book The Glass of Fashion, in which the author describes Balenciaga as “fashion’s Picasso”. It was tempting to consider how notions of exile and otherness might have informed Balenciaga’s work. Both Picasso and Balenciaga spent large portions of their careers working in Paris where they were both separated from their homeland and able to operate as outsiders in French culture. Questions of how notions of Spanish authenticity influenced both Balenciaga and Picasso’s work and its reception (from Paris) are left untreated.

Next one enters the main exhibition space, which is a large rectangular room organized according to themes stated above. Several of the themes identified by Bowles are well supported with wall texts, enlarged photographs, and carefully arranged display of garments. The influence of 17th century Spanish court costume on Balenciaga’s costume work, the roles of Spanish regional dress and dance, and the influence of clerical costume are all readily apparent in the garments selected for comparison. From 1939 on, Balenciaga’s work made frequent references to bullfighting costume, particularly to the traje de luces and bolero jackets. Surprisingly, this theme is introduced with a text that begins by informing the viewer that Balenciaga detested bullfighting, an opinion reinforced at least twice during the symposium. The question of why bullfighting costume consistently appeared in his work over the course of many years is left unanswered.

What is clear is Balenciaga’s reverence for Velazquez. If front of a large reproduction of Las Meninas stand several garments which draw inspiration from the painting. Balenciaga even went so far as to refer to several pieces as “Infanta” evening dresses, referencing the series of paintings which depict the Infanta Margarita. The similarities in line, form, composition, and color are clear, even though the 1939 evening dress which displays the most direct links to Velazquez’s painting was placed oddly away from this grouping.

The exhibition audioguide provided little information beyond what was presented in the wall texts and labels. The exhibition itself ends with a small pop-up gift shop. This is notable due to the fact that just beyond the shop lies the entrance to the textile study department of the museum, the doors to which were propped open as if to invite visitors. Though it is difficult to imagine many patrons making their way into the stacks, the relevance of the museum as a research institution is highlighted. Similarly, the significance of Balenciaga’s life and work is made abundantly clear by the exhibition, and it is likely that many viewer’s will not be bothered by its unanswered questions.


The panel of speakers included an international roster of experts in art and fashion history, including noted Balenciaga scholars. In addition to exploring the central thesis of the exhibition, the speakers presented new and exciting research into the life and career of Balenciaga, providing substantial historical context and correcting a few myths about the couturier.

Though he avoided the thornier questions of Spanish identity, Hamish Bowles made a strong case for its fundamental role in Balenciaga’s life and work, thereby expanding on the central thesis of the exhibition. Miren Arzalluz presented a detailed study of Balenciaga’s early career in San Sebastian, relying on well-researched documents and dispelling the myth that Balenciaga arrived in Paris in 1937 with little to no experience or skill. Lourdes Font provided an informative review of Spanish court costume, detailing its role as an inspirational source for Balenciaga’s work. Lastly, Pamela Golbin painted a detailed and entertaining portrait of the daily operations of the Balenciaga workshop, drawing on her extensive interviews and access to primary source documents.

Overall the speakers were informative, entertaining, and professional, and provided great insight into the Balenciaga’s life and work. Regrettably, there was no time for questions at the end. While filled with information, this listener was left with questions about some unresolved issues: Balenciaga’s relationship to bullfighting, his connections to the avant-garde art and literary circles in Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his relationship with Franco (apparently Balenciaga made Franco’s daughter’s wedding dress), and his sense of national identity (Balenciaga hails from Guetaria, in the Basque region). Nonetheless, the exhibition and symposium were highly informative and well staged, while leaving avenues of further research open to those so inclined.



1 Comment

  1. D. Tepfer said on 11 Apr 2011 at 10:42 pm:

    “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories
    Exhibition on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is yet another super exhibition on view May 12, 2011 – September 6, 2011.”
    “Drawing upon a wealth of rarely seen artistic and archival materials, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories illuminates Stein’s life and pivotal role in art during the 20th century. Focusing on Stein’s life from the end of World War I through World War II, the exhibition explores her evolving public personae, lifestyle, relationships, landmark 1934-35 tour of the United States, and life in France during WWII.

    Through a portrayal of Stein’s contributions in her writings, patronage, and lifestyle, the exhibition provides an intimate look at Stein’s complex relationship to her identity, culture, and history. Seeing Gertrude Stein also explores the ways in which Stein’s life and writings have impressed themselves upon the American artistic imagination and inspired generations of writers, artists, musicians, and performers.”